ARCHIVE: Back to the Sloop Count B

Brian WilsonThe East Coast crowds in Hiptown really dig his style of wares: Brian Wilson and his most happening band of helpers return to the stage of the Count Basie Theatre TONIGHT in a last-ditch effort to keep the summer thing going right up to Halloween’s doorstep.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit October 26, 2009)

It was “the steal of the night,” in the words of the auctioneer — a custom-crafted Challenger surfboard, handmade by the legendary master shaper Carl “Tinker” West for his old pal Bruce Springsteen, and autographed by the Boss — as well as by the man who’s done more than anyone to make the surf, sand and sun a cornerstone of the American experience, Brian Wilson.

While the board only fetched a “mere” $7,500 — versus a top bid of $12,500 for a chance to “party” with Bon Jovi Keyboardist David Bryan — the 2007 edition of the Count Basie Theatre Foundation’s Annual Spring Benefit Concert and Gala was a successful evening of music, mingling and Morgan Stanley-sponsored revelry beneath a tent pitched in the middle of Monmouth Street. And Wilson — every bit as much of an American sonic signifier as his predecessors at past galas (Tony BennettJames BrownSmokey Robinson) — brought the beach to the Basie, where Hawaiian shirts outflanked tuxes, and the formal to-do fairly dripped with colorful umbrellas, lifeguard stands and seashells.

Tonight at 8pm, the founder and mastermind of the Beach Boys returns to the Basie boards for the first time since the massively renovated auditorium’s re-opening — and the first time since that night in May of 2007, when Springsteen joined the national pop treasure and his amazing band at the end of a 26-song set that balanced bedrock crowdpleasers (”Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” “Help Me Rhonda”) with such relatively esoteric but beautifully rendered stuff as “Then I Kissed Her” (adapted from The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”), some triumphantly reclaimed selections from the “lost” 1967 SMiLE sessions, and a surprising choice of opener: the unjustly neglected 1965 single “The Little Girl I Once Knew.”

Perched for nearly the entire concert behind a keyboard that remained unplayed, the famously reticent maestro nodded in approval as his eleven-piece touring band — the core of which comprises the LA-based group otherwise known as Wondermints— supercharged their note-perfect channelings of the composer’s classic studio wizardry with the boundless enthusiasm of true fans living a years-long dream gig. And when Jersey pals like Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken (boosting the horsepower on “Surfin’ Safari” and “Fun Fun Fun”) and Bruce (grabbing a guitar for “Barbara Ann” and being careful not to upstage the ever-stoic Wilson) dropped by, it was as if they came to pay tribute to some benevolent (but forever inscrutable) king on his throne.

DownloadedFile-1Hang On To Your Ego: The Boss joins Brian Wilson and members of The Wondermints (including Taylor Mills, holding hands with Bruce) at the 2007 Count Basie Spring Benefit Concert.

Fans who caught any one of the several Wilson tours in recent years (including some breathtaking recreations of the mid-Sixties masterworks Pet Sounds and SMiLE) know what to expect from the 67 year old legend — a tightly orchestrated wall of sound that could hold Phil Spector for life; as many hits as your poor pitterpat can take, and a main attractionwhose many years in the wilderness have left him seeming like one of the least likely pop stars of all time.

There’s also an element of risk that puts the Wilson sets head and shoulders above the slick but soulless “Beach Boys” show band fronted by last-Boy-standing Mike Love. What else can this unrepentant music snob say about a band that floored us a few years back, when they trotted out a medley made up of three different arrangements of the sublime “Till I Die” — a monumental mash-up that exists only on an obscure but cherished bootleg?

With Brian long estranged from Love and having outlived his brother Boys Carl and Dennis, the trademark ethereal harmonies are expertly addressed by bandleaderDarian Sahanaja and his crew — including female vocalist Taylor Mills, taking on the high notes that Brian Wilson once handled himself.

Those who’ve suggested that the veteran pop star is being “carried” by his younger cohorts miss the point: this consummate craftsman was never a stripped-down “solo” performer, but a creator of singalongs and “teenage symphonies” for multiple voices and quirkily mixed instruments. He’s a chef, a chemist, a basement tinkerer and an “old master painter” who’s just one element in a vivid mural that he’s set into being. And, to emphasize the reinvigoration of this musical master that so many had given up as “lost in the sandbox” not so many years ago, his latest project involves his being retained by the estate of George Gershwin to complete some of that American icon’s unfinished compositions.

We can’t help but think of unfinished business when we flash back one more time to that night in 2007, as Springsteen rejoined the onstage company to lend his voice to the poignant closer “Love and Mercy.” The finest song of Wilson’s latterday solo career, this sincere plea for common kindness in a world numbed by violent rhetoric (and real violence) grows more trenchant and compelling with each passing day. Tickets ($49.50 – $75) are still available for tonight’s concert as we post this, and can be reserved right here.